The Rich Man and Lazarus

Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: Craig Coley, a California man who was wrongfully convicted for killing an ex-girlfriend and her son four decades ago, is found innocent, set free, and receives a $21 million settlement from the city of Simi Valley. After being locked up for 39 years, the unjustly held prisoner becomes a happy millionaire. Then there’s Bill Cosby, who once was known and loved by everyone as “America’s favorite Dad.” Now the disgraced millionaire comedian is languishing in prison, where he will likely spend the remainder of his life, after being convicted of sexual assault. What a contrast!

People have always been fascinated by ironic stories of rags to riches—and, yes, riches to rags. Perhaps that’s why Jesus told the astonishing story of two very different lives with two very distinct destinies—the tale of Lazarus and a rich man.

With an eager multitude gathered around Him, including some Pharisees lurking at the edges, Jesus told a parable about two men who were opposites in almost every respect. “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen,” Jesus explained (Luke 16:19). The rich man’s table was also regularly spread with feasts, and he enjoyed every variety of dainty delicacies.

Lazarus, on the other hand, was poor. He wore rags for clothes and was always hungry—so hungry that he laid in the street just outside the rich man’s gates in the hopes that he would “be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21). Make no mistake: Lazarus wasn’t hoping for a takeout box of leftovers. He wanted the dustpan scraps the maid swept up after supper. And to further illustrate how desperate his situation was, Jesus added, “Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.”

Though these two men dwelt in close proximity to one another, they lived opposite lives. Yet one thing was the same: They both died. What Jesus next said in His parable shocked the minds of everyone listening: The poor man “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom,” while the rich man was found in Hades, suffering torment (vv. 22, 23).

From his place in the flames, the rich man peered across the cosmic gulf to see Lazarus at Abraham’s side. It was too much to bear. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me!” the rich man cried out. “Send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame” (v. 24).

“Son,” Abraham answered, “remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us” (vv. 25, 26).

But the rich man wasn’t done moaning. He then said, “I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment” (vv. 27, 28).

And once again, Abraham rebuked him, saying, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29).

“No, father Abraham;” the rich man insisted, “but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30).

But Abraham was not swayed. “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (v. 31).

What could Jesus mean by such a harrowing story?

Depending on whom you ask, you’re going to get widely different interpretations, as different from each other as the rich man and Lazarus! For instance, many have used this passage as evidence that at death, the unrepentant go directly to an eternally burning hellfire, while the saved go straight to heaven. Others say the story is merely a picture illustration, a metaphor, of other divine principles, and that Jesus actually had different ideas about what happens in the afterlife.

So which is it? What is the more biblical picture of what’s happening? Let’s take a closer look.

What It Doesn’t Mean

The story of the rich man and Lazarus comes after a series of carefully told parables, which are fictional tales used to illustrate spiritual lessons. Parables are a teaching tool Jesus used as a matter of habit. “All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them” (Matthew 13:34).

Our understanding of this story hinges on whether it is a parable or whether Jesus switched from a string of figurative lessons here to something literal. For example, some argue that Jesus’ use of a specific name, Lazarus, is a clue that He was speaking literally.

However, the name Lazarus is actually the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Eliezer, the name of Abraham’s faithful servant (Strong’s Concordance, 2976). It was a common name for Israelite sons. (It was the name of Moses’ second son by Zipporah, for instance, and the name of a prophet in 2 Chronicles.) It would be no surprise that Jesus would use this name in connection with Abraham, and it is a strong clue that this is indeed a parable. Let’s look at a few more clues …

1. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells two other parables that begin the same way, referring to a rich man. “He spoke a parable to them, saying: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully’” (Luke 12:16). And, “There was a certain rich man who had a steward …” (Luke 16:1). Likewise, the central figure of this story is not Lazarus, but the unnamed rich man.

2. Jesus’ tale says that the rich man in Hades wanted a drop of water to cool his tongue. If a radiator is overheating, how much good is a single drop of water? Likewise, would a drop of water offer any relief in the fires of hell? We can safely assume that Jesus is using hyperbole.

3. It is said that after he died, Lazarus was carried to the midst of Abraham’s bosom. Of course, angels do not literally carry saved people to Abraham’s bosom. We can safely assume this is yet another figure of speech.

4. Abraham and the rich man are said to be able to talk to each other. But would those in paradise really be able to see, hear, and talk to the lost blistering in hellfire? Would it really be paradise to see your lost loved ones burning and not be able to help them? Again, we can safely assume that Jesus was painting an illustration, not recording facts.

The most rational understanding of this story is that it is also one of the many parables Jesus tells to illustrate divine truths. This is the position of many historical Bible scholars, including those who believed that people go to heaven or hell straight after they die.

In 1862, for instance, famous Presbyterian Albert Barnes wrote, “Many have supposed that our Lord here refers to a real history and gives an account of some man who had lived in this manner. But of this there is no evidence. The probability is, that this narrative is to be considered as a parable” (Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Gospels).

Also commenting on this passage, Baptist John Gill said, “In Beza’s most ancient copy, and in another manuscript of his, it is read by way of preface, ‘he said also another parable’: which shows, that this is not a history of matter of fact, or an historical account of two such persons” (Exposition of the Whole Bible). Many more theologians throughout history have understood that this story is a parable, spoken by Christ to get across spiritual truths.

Most important, we can know that Jesus’ hearers that day would have understood that it was a parable. The word “Hades” was well-known to be a word borrowed from Greek mythology. In those myths, Hades was both the name of the underworld as well as the name of the god in charge of the place.

In one of the 14 schools I attended as a young man, I participated in a play about Greek mythology. I was given the role of Pluto—the Roman name for Hades. Indeed, many of our modern conceptions about hell are influenced by Greek and Roman mythology; the medieval church adopted such views, tangling up the truth about hell. But to Jesus’ Jewish listeners, the word Hades would have indicated that He was speaking in metaphor.

I could even do the same thing right now. If I began a story by saying, “One day Alice walked into Wonderland,” you would immediately understand that I was not telling a literal story. In our culture, most people are aware of Lewis Carroll’s fairytale, Alice in Wonderland. In the same way, the Jewish people would have recognized Hades as a Greek myth and that Jesus was using it for illustration.

What Does the Rest of the Bible Say?

We can also know that this is a parable by comparing it to other parts of Scripture, including Jesus’ own plainly stated beliefs. It’s always dangerous to base an entire doctrine on a single text, and the more we look into this subject, we’ll find that the rest of Scripture is clear that the punishment of the wicked comes at the end of the world.

Jesus said, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48, my emphasis). When are those who reject Jesus judged? In the last day.

Furthermore, Jesus plainly stated that the saved do not receive their reward until the resurrection. “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54, my emphasis).

Jesus also told a parable about the timing of the final judgment—and even provided His own explanation, making it hard to misunderstand His intent. You find it in Matthew 13:38–42. In that parable, a farmer sowed good seed, but an enemy came and sowed weeds. Jesus explained the lesson, saying, “The tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend … and will cast them into the furnace of fire” (my emphasis). According to Jesus, the wicked will be cast into hell at the end of this age. This is a strong indication that Jesus was speaking figuratively in the story of Lazarus.

While some people may get mixed up trying to turn the parable of the rich man and Lazarus into a literal description of what happens at death, we can know that Jesus has an entirely different purpose. The question is: What is the purpose of the rich man and Lazarus parable?

Two Themes

A wonderful thing about parables is that they can have several spiritual lessons and multiple applications. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is but one example of many; it has at least two spiritual lessons for us to ponder.

One theme is that our everyday actions have eternal consequences. The ability to choose salvation is not available to us after death. Another theme is that God sees people differently than sinful humanity sees them.

As always, understanding the context is paramount to understanding a Bible passage. What happened before Jesus told this parable? He told the parable about an unjust steward. He ended that story with this summary: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other. … You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). The Pharisees were listening. The Bible says that when they heard Jesus’ words, “They derided Him.” Why? Because they “were lovers of money” (v. 14). The Pharisees claimed to be followers of God; they gave the outward impression of being ultra-religious, dutifully following all the supposed rules in order to be righteous. Yet Jesus knew that in their hearts, they loved their earthly riches more than they loved God—and it always showed in their actions.

Jesus then wove a warning to speak to their spiritual uncleanliness: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15).

After this, Jesus gives the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. And likewise in this story, He included themes that the Pharisees needed to hear. But they aren’t just for the Pharisees living in the first century. You and I need to heed this parable too.


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